Facts Under Siege

Author, advocate Charles Lewis warns that "this is not a time for timidity"

Rod Spaw, Bloomington Herald Times

INDIANAPOLIS -- Charles Lewis is trying to think of some new words to describe the current state of information. "Scary" just doesn't go far enough, he told journalists, educators and citizen activists gathered Friday, April 21,in Indianapolis for the 2006 Freedom of Information Summit.

The founder of the Center for Public Integrity and president of Fund for Independence in Journalism warned about what he sees as the "contraction of the public sphere" that affects "what we can think about, talk about, write about, read about."

Part of the problem, he said, is the action of government to restrict or otherwise hinder access to information, such as the recent decision of the National Archives to reclassify 55,000 previously public documents, and what Lewis called "prosecutorial zeal" against working journalists by federal prosecutors.

"When I left '60 Minutes' and started the Center for Public Integrity (in 1989), I thought things had really gone to hell. I thought they couldn't get worse. Boy, was I wrong."

Part of the problem is the media, according to the former "60 Minutes" and ABC News investigative reporter, who said corporate profits too often take precedence to informed newsgathering.

"Everything keeps getting dumbed down, devoid of analysis, original reporting. Sound bites 20 years ago were 19 seconds. Today, it's six seconds."

Lewis said public apathy and ignorance also is a factor.

"More people know today about the 'Simpsons' television show than they do about the First Amendment. More Americans know who the Three Stooges are than know the three branches of government."

What it all means, he told FOI summit participants, is that the work of those who seek out, analyze and publish information from the public record is more important than ever.

"This is not a time for timidity," he said. "The most important thing we can do is stand up to these folks, whoever they are, wherever they are, and get as much information as possible."

Lewis did cite some successes in the fight for an informed citizenry, such as the efforts of the Center for Public Integrity to identify no-bid Defense contracts in Iraq, in particular, and in Pentagon procurement policy, in general. Lewis also noted that the summit's host state, Indiana, was one of only 24 states that have strengthened public disclosure laws since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Still, he said those who believe as he does in the power of information and truth have a lot of work to do.

"When two-thirds of the country think Saddam brought down the trade towers on 9/11 at the end of 2004, there is a very serious problem here about information. That's why documents are so crucial. That's why we have to do this work."

Lewis urged his audience to be as aggressive as possible in seeking access to information and to resist those who would do the public's business in private.

"Always appeal, and when possible, sue them. Make sure they know you're mad and you're not going to take it."